I have so much nostalgia wrapped up in the food that I cook. Long before I started cooking I was eating, and only when I started cooking did I actually start tasting. Which is when I discovered my interest in food and flavor. Prior to this flavor revelation I was satisfied with rolling up a tortilla with salsa and chips inside and calling it lunch. I had to cook for myself to truly start to taste food.
I am a total food-taster now, I go through my day experiencing what I put in my mouth through a filter; with an interest in the components that make-up what I’m eating. I will stop to ponder the subtle notes of this or that spice, or tilt my head to the wind like a dog trying to decide what has led to the decidedly nuanced textures in my mouth. This has all been recent in relation to the scope of my life. Though developing my palette has been a process it has taken a long time to get my brain and my senses to work together… as friends. And since I didn’t really start ‘tasting’ food until recently I am on a constant journey to make food taste the way I remember that it should. Hence me cooking from nostalgia, mostly. Let me explain.
The food that I grew up eating was surprisingly good, balanced, and well-composed. I had little if any complaints about my Mom’s cooking, her natural ability in a kitchen, or even her affinity for local Chinese Takeout on those nights when work/school/dance/gymnastics/soccer/whatever got in the way.
I remember her flipping to the recipe section of the NY Times, clipping the articles she liked stapling them or even shoving them into a black & white marble composition notebook. The notebook would fill to capacity until the cover barely stayed closed when lying on the table, and then one recipe at a time my Mom would pull up a dish and try it out at home. This meant more gourmet on some nights, and more down-home on others. This meant a chicken and dumplings recipe that was cooked by Martha Washington herself, this meant bistro style mashed potatoes with rosemary, or an olive oil cake. I didn’t know at the time, but my Mom was setting me up to be a true ‘taster’ later in life. Which is why, on a mission to capture something lost, I cook from such a nostalgic place in my taste buds. It is almost as if I am trying to get those flavors back, to get inside my Mom’s cooking-style and harness it for myself. Albeit with a lot more fresh fish and seafood than she was ever willing to touch with her tuna-fearing hands.
I hope the next time I’m stateside that I can locate this marble notebook full of culinary jewels. It’s bound to be in the deep abyss of storage or tucked away in a box, but I feel finding it will be like finding a treasure chest. Perhaps seeing more of my Mom’s recipes copied by hand from a library book, or cut from the paper or a magazine will give me more insight into her own food philosophy. Call me crazy, but I think self taught-home cooks have some of the best food philosophies. For my Mom; she needed to feed her family, she wanted us to have the kind of upbringing where we sat down to a meal at the table every night. She was also keenly aware that she could, on many occasions, use the needtofeed as a creative outlet; as a means of challenging herself to learn knew things in the kitchen. I have the best memories of my Mom leaning near the stove with a tumbler of red wine, barefoot (always), cooking up dinner and making it look so easy. I never saw her break a sweat in the kitchen, not when cooking for us, not when cooking for guests or a holiday meal, not ever.
I like to think I have carried some of that composure into my own culinary exploits. A kind of cool, calm, collected-ness that allows me to try new things in the kitchen without hesitation. To feed the friends I live with, to feed the customers at the Cafe I work at with a confidence that says “Taste this, it’s great!”. I am grateful for all those dinners my Mom made for us. For the birthday cakes she stayed up late baking and decorating, for the holiday traditions, for the inspired recipes she followed, for the way her food tasted like her food. I’m grateful more-so for my Mom instilling such food philosophies in me. I never thought about it until right now at this very moment, but my Mom is my greatest culinary influence and she never even ate my food.
This week marked 7 years since my mom died. It seems the more time passes the harder it is to believe. She was as young, vibrant and healthy as I can possibly imagine any 50 year old mom of 3 to be. Sadly, because nothing is fair, her body felt differently and a disease took over. But on this particular week I have been trying extra hard to not focus on this. Instead, I am focused on things like her roast chicken, her cream of mushroom soup fetish, her love of french bread sandwiches and cape cod potato chips. This soup is not something she cooked in particular. But she was a sucker for dishes like this – a little naughty while being somehow elegant at the same time. But the taste of summer corn, cooked on the grill, and slathered lovingly with butter and salt is so my mom.
Corn Chowder with Bacon
5-6 pieces of bacon
3-4 ears of fresh corn (the sweeter the better!)
3-4 small potatoes, diced
1 leek sliced
1 onion diced
3 cloves garlic chopped
few sprigs thyme
3 cups chicken stock
3/4 cup cream
big pinch smoked paprika
pinch red chili flakes
salt and pepper
green onion sliced for garnish
In a heavy pot or dutch oven start by browning your bacon. Once cooked it can be removed to a paper towel and saved.
Remove a few spoonfuls of the bacon grease if you have too much. Add your onions and leeks to the pot and cook until translucent. Add garlic, fresh thyme and stir until the garlic is just fragrant.
Add the chicken stock and the potatoes and bring to a boil. Add the fresh corn and drop the whole thing to a simmer.
Let simmer and reduce for 20 minutes or until the potatoes are nice and soft. If you want this is a good time to blend half of the soup to create a creamy texture. Add the blended half back into the pot and add your cream.
Season with paprika, chili, salt and pepper and continue heating for another 2-3 minutes.
Garnish each bowl with a hefty handful of cooked bacon and green onions. Serve with a chunk of crusty bread for soaking purposes.